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The art of the ‘backronym’

Remember: Congress HEALS, and Congress CARES

When Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans unveiled the so-called HEALS Act this week, it wasn’t the first backronym to pass through Washington — and it certainly won’t be the last.
When Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans unveiled the so-called HEALS Act this week, it wasn’t the first backronym to pass through Washington — and it certainly won’t be the last. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As Congress tries to address the devastation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers are using a tried and true method to signal their concern for the country: the “backronym.”

Senate Republicans have introduced the HEALS Act (Health, Economic Assistance, Liability and Schools) … which follows March’s CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security).

Are you sensing a pattern?

It may seem to you that lawmakers sometimes come up with the acronym first and then work backward to form the text. That’s because they do.

If there’s one thing politicians obsess over (other than fundraising), it’s messaging. And one of the easiest ways to message a 2,000-page complex piece of legislation is to give it a (sometimes sentimental) name. For instance, the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) plays on the concept of the American Dream to argue that immigrants brought to the country as minors should not face deportation. 

Admittedly, the HEALS and CARES acts aren’t even close to the most egregious examples of shoehorning a phrase just to conjure a catchy acronym. I’m looking at you CLEARANCES Act (Commonsense Legislation Ensuring Accountability by Reporting Access of Non-Cleared Employees to Secrets).

The CLEARANCES Act, which has yet to advance out of its own committee, was introduced by Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California, who’s a bit of savant when it comes to the backronym. His Hold the LYNE Act (Hold the Low-Yield Nuclear Explosive) is another masterpiece.

Meanwhile, some words show up repeatedly when shoehorning backronyms, like “relief,” which makes an appearance in the aforementioned pandemic bills as well as Sen. Roy Blunt’s Fair BEER Act (Fair Brewers Excise and Economic Relief).

The persistence of backronyms has even led some to question whether Congress employs staffers whose specialty is coming up with them.

While that may not be the case, lawmakers have been known to put pressure on staffers to come up with an approved bill title. That’s reportedly what happened in 2005, when Rep. Don Young named the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users or SAFETEA-LU as a tribute to his wife, Lula. According to a report from the Los Angeles Times, “the House Transportation Committee staff labored to fulfill a directive from then-Chairman Don Young, an Alaska Republican, to name a bill after his wife.”

Paul Fontelo contributed to this report.

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